Lighthouses and forts are often neighbors as important waterways needed to be clearly marked and well defended. Fort Gratiot, a stockade fort, was built in 1814 to guard the juncture of Lake Huron and St. Clair River and is named after Charles Gratiot, the engineer that supervised its construction. On March 3, 1823, Congress provided $3,500 for the Secretary of the Treasury to have a lighthouse built near Fort Gratiot in Michigan Territory and added another $5,000 to this amount on April 2, 1824.
Winslow Lewis was awarded the contract for constructing the lighthouse, but he subcontracted the work to Daniel Warren of Rochester, New York. A conical, thirty-two-foot-tall tower, outfitted with an array of lamps and reflectors, was completed in August 1825 at a cost of $5,762.83. Temporary keepers Rufus Hatch and Jean B. Desnoyers were employed until George McDougall arrived in December to take charge of the lighthouse, which was the first built in Michigan. McDougall had practiced law in Detroit for several years before his political friends obtained the position of keeper for him.
Keeper McDougall wasted no time in writing William Woodbridge, Customs Collector at Detroit, concerning the towers deficiencies. I find the third stairs in going up in some places so steep as to compel me to force up sideways, McDougall complained. Then, after ascending a nearly perpendicular ladder, there was an eighteen by twenty-one-and-a-quarter-inch trap door through which, with very great difficulty, McDougall had to squeeze. Once in the lantern room, there was barely space for McDougall to walk around the lamps without rubbing. The lighthouse was reportedly not only poorly built but poorly located, being too far south for boats on Lake Huron to see it.
During the summer of 1828, Keeper McDougall reported that the lighthouse had cracks in its walls and was leaning to the east. The following September, a great storm blew with tremendous fury for three days and nights and eroded vast amounts of the shore. The lighthouse was undermined, and before repairs could be made, it toppled over in November.
Congress appropriated $8,000 on March 2, 1829 for a new lighthouse, and a $4,445 contract for a tower and dwelling was awarded to Lucius Lyon, who later served as one of Michigans first senators. Located north of the original tower, the second Fort Gratiot Lighthouse was built of brick and stood sixty-nine feet tall. The total cost of the new structures came to $5,001.48, and the remainder of the appropriation was carried to the surplus fund.
Though George McDougall was listed as keeper, due to gout and other infirmities, he was forced to employ a helper to look after the light. In 1838, Lieutenant James T. Homans found the light in a cleanly and orderly appearance and noted that during the thirteen years McDougall had been keeper, he received strong encomiums of praise from masters of vessels navigating the upper lakes. During his visit, Homans noted that several glass panes in the lantern room were broken, damage which Keeper McDougall attributed to gulls or other wild fowl that abound in this neighborhood. As no spare panes of glass were kept at the lighthouse, Keeper McDougall was unable to remedy the situation on his own. Mc Dougall, a bachelor, served until his death in 1842.
In 1857, a fourth-order Fresnel lens, which produced a fixed white light, was installed in Fort Gratiot Lighthouse, replacing eight lamps and fifteen-inch reflectors that had been used in the tower for several years. Due to the numerous lights exhibited at nearby railway depots and other buildings, the fixed lens at Fort Gratiot was swapped in 1867 for the revolving lens in use at Point aux Barques Lighthouse. The third-order Fresnel lens installed in 1867 was manufactured by Henry Lepaute and was equipped with external flash panels that revolved to produce a fixed light varied by flashes. A tube for the descending weight that powered the revolving mechanism for the lens had to be added to the lighthouse. Another improvement to the lighthouse had been carried out in 1862, when an addition was made to the top of the tower to increase the height of the light by roughly twenty feet.
Following an appropriation on March 3, 1871, an eight-inch steam fog whistle was added to the station. The fog signal was finished in time to be of service during the thick and smoky conditions that resulted from the Port Huron Fire, Peshtigo Fire, and Great Chicago Fire, all of which broke out on October 8, 1871.
An assistant keeper was assigned to the station to help with the extra burden of running the fog signal, and on June 23, 1874, Congress provided $10,000 for constructing the present brick duplex for the keepers and their families. A duplicate fog signal was added to the station in 1880, and a circular iron oil house, with a capacity of 360 gallons, was erected in 1890. The characteristic of the light was changed in 1893 from a fixed white light varied by a white flash every two minutes, to a fixed white light varied by a white flash every minute.
The dwelling and fog signals were connected to the city water main in 1896, and in 1898, sewer pipes were laid from the dwelling to the river. A new brick fog signal building, measuring twenty-two by forty feet and capable of containing the duplicate fog-signal machinery, was finished in July 1901.
After a spate of accidents at the head of St. Clair River, the Lighthouse Service decided in 1911 to also sound the fog signal at Fort Gratiot whenever fog existed in the river and Lake Huron was clear. Previous to this change, vessels had no means of anticipating fog in the river until they were already fighting the rivers rapid current.
On September 25, 1914, a different fog signal characteristic of a five-second blast every minute was introduced to indicate when there was fog on the river that stations regular characteristic of a three-second blast every twenty seconds was still used when there was fog on Lake Huron. An auxiliary air diaphone fog signal was installed at the station on May 10, 1920 to sound the five-second blast indicating foggy conditions on the river, while the steam whistle, which was changed from an eight-inch whistle to a six-inch whistle in 1915, continued to sound the regular three-second blast every twenty seconds when it was foggy on Lake Huron. In 1927, it was decided that the steam fog would only be sounded when there was fog on the lake and the river was clear, while the air diaphone would sound when there was fog on the river, regardless of conditions on the lake.
The intensity of the light emitted by Fort Gratiot Lighthouse was increased on September 13, 1912, by changing the illuminant from oil to incandescent oil vapor, and again on March 31, 1927, when the light was electrified.
A powerful storm struck Lake Huron on November 9 11, 1913, tearing away the timber cribwork, meant to protect the shoreline, and nearly undermining the lighthouse. The lakeside boundary of the station was lined with new timber and cement cribs of sufficient strength to defy future onslaughts, and timber cribs were extended a short distance out into the water in several places to trap the sand cast up by the waves to build up the shore.
The longest-serving keeper at Fort Gratiot Lighthouse was Frank E. Kimball, who retired on September 1, 1929 at the age of seventy. Keeper Kimball entered the Lighthouse Service in 1882, and served as head keeper of Port Austin Reef Lighthouse from 1883 to 1894, and then head keeper at Fort Gratiot for thirty-five years. Kimball was awarded the lighthouse efficiency flag for having the model station in the district in 1918.
A single dwelling for the keepers was added to the station in 1933 at a cost of $5,738. An electric oscillator fog signal replaced the steam whistle in 1934, the same year the towers light was changed to green. In 1941, fog signal operation at the station was changed so that the fog signal only sounded when the upper St. Clair River was foggy. Mariners could also radio Port Huron Coast Guard Station to obtain fog reports for the river.
In 2004, Fort Gratiot Lighthouse, deemed excess by the Coast Guard, was offered at no cost to eligible entities, including federal, state, and local agencies, non-profit corporations, and educational organizations under the provisions of the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000. The City of Port Huron submitted an application for the lighthouse and was recommended as the new owner, but the official transfer was delayed pending cleanup of hazardous materials by the Coast Guard. After learning that roughly $4 million was needed to restore the light station, the city council rejected the deed offered by the federal government, however, in April 2010 the commissioners of St. Clair County agreed to accept ownership. The deed for the property was transferred from the federal government to the county in September 2010.
In July 2011, the Port Huron City Council voted 6-0 at a special meeting Monday to pay National Restoration, based in Keego Harbor, $332,900 to restore the 182-year-old lighthouse. Though the lighthouse is owned by the county, the city controlled $680,000 in grant money and matching funds earmarked for the lighthouse. The county used $40,000 of the money it had to replace the roofs of the fog signal building and an equipment building. A grand re-opening of Fort Gratiot Light Station, which had been closed to the public since 2008, was held on May 19, 2012.
From 1875 to 1882, the Lighthouse Board noted in its annual report that Fort Gratiot Lighthouse was old, leaky, and should be replaced. Fortunately, the request for $25,000 for a new lighthouse was not granted, and thanks to a thorough restoration of the station in 2011, Michigans oldest lighthouse will likely be around for many years to come.
- Head: George McDougall (1825 1842), William Church (1842 1843), Eber Ward (1843 1845), Nathan (William) Wright (1845 1849), Elijah Crane (1849 1850), William H. Taylor (1850 1853), Elihu Granger (1853 1857), Elijah Burch (1857 1859), Peter McMartin (1859 1861), Eber Lewis (1861 1864), John W. Vanhorn (1864 1865), David W. Cooper (1865), W.H. Sutherland (1865 1866), John W. Vanhorn (1866 1869), John Sinclair (1869 1881), John Sinclair, Jr. (1881 1882), Israel T. Palmer (1882 1894), Frank E. Kimball (1894 1929), John E. Smith (1929 1940), Russell H. Bergh (1940 ), William A. Wilkinson (1946 1950).
- First Assistant: John P. Hutton (1870 1872), John Sinclair, Jr. (1872 1881), Frank Cowan (1881 1882), Samuel C. Palmer (1882 1887), Frank F. Palmer (1887 1888), Daniel Carrigan (1888 1900), Herbert N. Burrows (1900 1901), Otto Redman (1901 1910), Emil E. Kohnert (1911 at least 1915), John S. Van Natter (1917 at least 1941), William A. Wilkinson (1943 1946).
- Second Assistant: John S. Van Natter (1915 1917), Clarence P. Tupper (1917 at least 1921), Albert F. Brown (1924 1925), David McRae (at least 1928), Elmer A. Sormunen (at least 1930 at least 1933), Levi M. Whipple (1935 1940), William A. Wilkinson (1940 1943).
- Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board, various years.
- Annual Report of the Commissioner of Lighthouses, various years.
- Annual Report of the Lake Carriers Association, various years.
- St. Clair County, Michigan, its history and its people, William Lee Jenks, 1912.